How much of a woman’s story can be found in her birthplace? How much of a woman’s story can her children tell? Lynn Stegner asks many questions regarding women’s identity and legacy in her fourth novel, Because a Fire Was in My Head.
The book’s title and central theme is drawn from W.B. Yeats’ poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” In Yeats’ poem, a man embarks on a lifelong quest to find the “glimmering girl” in his dreams. His journey takes him far from home with no guarantee that he will ever find love, but he is driven forward by “the fire in [his] . . . head.” In Stegner’s novel, the central character, Kate Riley, is similarly driven through landscapes, both internal and external, chasing her dreams. I was immediately drawn to the story as several years ago, after my divorce, I found myself embarking on a journey of my own, engaging in a life that would take me far from my hometown and away from the traditional life I had planned. For readers facing an unexpected journey, this is a novel to embrace. It is also a novel for readers interested in women’s changing roles and the construction of motherhood in the second half of the twentieth century, as what complicates Kate’s story is that she is a mother. In order to chase her dreams, she chooses to abandon each of her four children.
Kate fills one of the most difficult roles in fiction — The Bad Mother. Kate’s first child is blind, and she uses the disability to justify giving her up for adoption. She nearly kills her second child when she forgets him in the car while she’s involved in a sexual interlude. Kate shuttles the third child back and forth between a foster home and a convent orphanage, removing him for weekends in an attempt to get his father to marry her. What happens to her fourth child, a son, is barely explored; he is as peripheral to the text as he is to Kate’s life. Fewer characters are harder to embrace than a mother who abandons her children, and when the adoptive mother of one of her children scathingly remarks to her, “Why don’t you go and get yourself sterilized?” it is hard not to agree. Yet, Stegner writes with expert skill: Kate Riley ought to be utterly unlikable, yet, like a frustratingly wayward sister, she engenders sympathy.
Stegner reveals psychology through place, and the harsh prairie landscape plays an integral function in Kate’s development. Stegner describes Kate’s native home, Netherfield, Saskatchewan:
Everyone seemed to be leaving the Prairies. A pale new light exposed Netherfield for what it was, or for what had been its destiny from the very beginning. It was like a child who carries a defective gene. The Prairies were too harsh, too dry, too cold, the rain unreliable, the native species so ancient, so subtly adapted that they and whatever value they possessed were mostly invisible. . . .
Kate leaves her birthplace but cannot find a sense of belonging anywhere else: “She was only thirty-two years old, yet in San Francisco she became aware of a delayed rhythm. . . . Something vital had passed her by, some living scintillation at the center of things had blinked out, not her youth exactly but who she might have been as a youth, susceptible to the beat and swing of the times.”
Displacement always surrounds Kate:
Behind the boats across the Channel the green blur of Santa Cruz Island rose up from the water like a ghost of a place she would never know. There were a lot of places like that, a lot of things she would never know. Life seemed very short suddenly, almost over.
Like the Prairies, Kate is too harsh, too dry, too cold, and too unreliable to make a home anywhere else. But in spite of the fact that Kate treats her parents poorly, runs from man to man, and abandons each of her children in horrifying ways, one cannot help but sympathize with her at times, aware that, like her Prairie birthplace, it is as though she carries a defective gene.
What makes Kate’s story particularly pitiful is that, like Yeats’ Aengus, she is chasing something unattainable. The fire in her head — perhaps a form of madness — drives her to seek out better towns, better men, better children, and a better life. With each move across the Northwest, Kate attempts to recreate herself and break out of the confines of family life: “Kate struggled against the sameness of the days, time rolling out like a bolt of patterned silk that threatened to go on forever.” With each new man and each new child we can feel Kate’s sense of hope, but by the time we see her try to start over with a fourth man and a fourth child, we suspect her journey is futile. The bolt of silk will go on forever and, in spite of her unforgivable actions, she earns our sympathy rather than our contempt.
Kate, for whom “the relentless space of the Prairies had bred in her senses certain abstract requirements, like independence and freedom,” lives outside the bounds of any social mores. This puts a spotlight on the rules governing marriage, motherhood, and the lives of women in her day. Her thorough disregard for the conventional morality of the 1950s — another reason to empathize with her — is particularly interesting at a time when, in the face of a 50% divorce rate, some groups espousing “family values” are calling for a return to the ’50s-era nuclear family. Kate’s refusal to follow the moral and social constructs of her day allows us to better scrutinize and understand the constructs of our own.
Stegner creates a complex heroine in Kate, and the book’s narrative structure mimics this complexity. Occasional nonlinear time and perspective techniques send the text beyond the lines of traditional storytelling. The book opens with a middle-aged Kate about to undergo brain surgery, but quickly turns back in time to Kate’s childhood: “With a homesickness that was beyond repair, it was not 1970, it was 1941, and Kate Riley stood on a wooden platform, in Netherfield, Saskatchewan . . . .” The book then unfolds largely chronologically until the last few chapters — a narrative convention that aptly reflects the times. However, the story never returns to its opening, nor ends with Kate’s perspective. Instead, the narrative switches and Stegner steers the book in an unexpected direction.
Stegner subverts the expected in both form and content. She uses many conventional “women’s issues” like body image, marriage, profession, and motherhood as tropes, giving each narrative detail weight and import. Even the protagonist’s drink of choice, Canadian Club and 7-Up — a mix of Canadian and the American brands — reflects Kate, as she cannot belong in any one place. Kate also cannot belong in any one body. Her weight rises and falls with the disappearance and appearance of each man, bringing her closer to or further from her imaginative alter ego, Ramona Moon: “On the outside now she looked exactly as she envisioned Ramona Moon, a fattish slattern doomed to solitude.”
Kate Riley’s marriages buck expectations too, and she rejects the ’50s notion of the conventional housewife, as well as the ’60s notion of an equal partnership. She is married multiple times to rich, older men, but she does not seek their money. Rather, drawing upon Freud, Stegner notes Kate’s moves from man to man as a search for the irreplaceable love and importance Kate felt her father gave her. In her first marriage, to a man nearly 50 years her senior, Kate refuses to quit work, an anathema to ’50s cultural mores: “Kate felt that she could do anything she wanted; no one, not even her husband, could stop her. She strolled across the marble-floored bank as if it belonged to her . . . .” When she marries money again in the ’60s, Kate remains at odds with the sentiment of the times. “She felt as conventional as the marriage she was about to enter into, and at the same time, unable to want anything else.” Stegner hearkens back to Kate’s birthplace to explain, in part, Kate’s disjunction: “These sequent fugitives of European poverty, these children of the Prairies, orphans of both an old and a new world.”
If Kate represents a metaphoric orphan of the Prairies, her children become literal orphans. The novel unflinchingly portrays a view of motherhood devoid of sentimentality. Reminiscent of Doris Lessing’s treatment of irresponsible reproduction in The Fifth Child, the focus here is on the psychology of the woman, rather than the social pact. Kate embodies a woman without maternal yearning, a “maternal heart of darkness.” Stegner also renders Kate’s relationship with her mother as crucial to her psychological development. Stegner portrays that connection as fraught, perhaps even abusive — the narrative voice leaves room for question. Ironically, Kate’s own daughter appears to understand her best and forgive her most: “Kate Riley was never meant to be a mother, mine or anyone’s, only a daughter who would become a lover.” Kate’s daughter arrives at this conclusion knowing that her mother abandoned each of her four children, fathered by four different men.
The reader will receive only glimpses into the effects of the mother’s actions on the children into adulthood. Through the children, however, interesting questions about legacy arise. Will the particular legacy of a woman, her actions, the details of her life live on with her offspring? A woman’s particular choices, including her mistakes, help to form children; however, how much responsibility does a woman hold for her children as adults, no matter how good, or how bad, her mothering and her choosing? Given Kate’s fraught relationship with her own mother, the reader may question whether or not to blame Kate’s adult mistakes on that original, tenuous bond.
Through Kate’s rejection of motherhood, Stegner gives voice to women’s complex emotions surrounding pregnancy, motherhood, and identity. Some women fear pregnancy whereas others crave it. A woman might reject pregnancy at one point in her life and then desire it at another. A woman who wanted children for years might find herself resenting her kids. When my own marriage ended in my thirties, I had to face the fact that I was not a mother and that I might never become one — I might never be the person I thought I already should have become. Initially, Kate accidentally becomes pregnant and feels trapped by impending motherhood, but later she uses pregnancy as a pawn in an attempt to force a man into marriage. She desires children at certain points in her life and then cruelly rejects them. To discuss motherhood in anything other than glowing terms is still fairly taboo, and Kate’s extreme rejection of the role allows the reader to reflect on her own feelings.
After years of observing my closest friends grow up, marry, and give birth to their first children, it was only when my best friend gave birth to her baby girl that the stark realities of motherhood became evident to me. Unlike Kate, who immediately relinquishes her child with a birth defect, my friend brought home a beautiful baby with Down syndrome and two congenital heart defects. After watching my friend struggle to care for her family, it might be easy to dismiss a fictional character like Kate. Except mothers like Kate exist, and they can still be worthy of empathy. Like other classic mother-identity construction novels, such as Sue Miller’s The Good Mother, Stegner’s text portrays a complicated character, both flawed and sympathetic.
Two of Stegner’s earlier novels, National Book Award nominees Undertow and Fata Morgana, reveal themes shared with Because a Fire Was in My Head. Undertow examines motherhood and sexual relationships, while Fata Morgana explores female friendship and identity. Much of Undertow feels overwrought in subject and style, but it is in that book that the kernel of Kate’s story first appears. On the University of Nebraska Press’s website, Stegner notes,
Twenty years ago I intended to write the novel that has become Because a Fire Was in My Head. . . . Almost immediately and with a kind of sickening certitude I realized that I was not equal to the story. I lacked the technical skills, sure; but more importantly, I hadn’t earned something that has to be earned over time, through other books, other lives. I hadn’t earned the right to tell the story, it was too big, a whole-world canvas.
As I watch my friends raise their children, and I build a home and family of my own, I consider the question of motherhood, of generations, of the “whole-world canvas.” One legacy of my family: three generations of divorce and a complicated history of childbearing. Am I who I thought I would be? No. Am I sorry for the journey? No. Am I a mother? Perhaps the answer to this leads to the central question of Stegner’s text: Is motherhood a measure of degree and tradition, or is it a fact of biology? Perhaps the only clear answer is that as readers — and as people — we should try to understand the complicated social, economic, and emotional factors that shape each of us. Stegner thoroughly examines each.
Indeed, Stegner’s development as a writer is evident in this book, which won the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for Best Novel. Daughter-in-law of the late Wallace Stegner and married to the writer Page Stegner, the legacy here belongs to Lynn Stegner: razor-sharp prose, haunting imagery, and timeless ideas about creation and the living of a woman’s life.